The Importance of Breath

The breath is one of our most important healing tools, and possibly one of the most overlooked. Breathing is something we do all day, every day, usually without conscious thought. Because it is so constant, it disappears into the background of our body awareness. When we consciously think about and change the breath, we are able to speak to the body in very profound ways.

The breath is one of the easiest bridges between the parts of our bodies that we can control and the bodily processes that are not conscious. It is a biological process that naturally falls into both categories, and so becomes a way for our mind to speak to our body directly.

Deep breathing: When we take a deep breath, it stimulates the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system that calms the body, helping us come out of a state of stress and distress, and move toward rest, restoration, and healing. Deep breathing helps reduce emotional distress and anxiety because it changes how those feelings are felt in the physical body. It can also help bring a sense of calm centeredness and overall wellbeing.

Breath awareness: Turning our attention to the breath is a fundamental mindfulness practice. When we pay attention to the flow of air in and out of our bodies, it cues the mind to tune into the present moment. This allows us to drop the anxiety and stress that comes with thinking about the past and future, and brings us more fully present to the physical reality of being alive. When we practice mindfulness like this, it can rewire neural pathways in the brain to reduce pain, anxiety, depression, and stress.

Breath in the body: The breath is also a physical event in the body, engaging a complex array of muscles and tissues and massaging the internal organs. Injuries, surgeries, and chronic stress can change the way the body breathes, which in turn can cause chronic tension and pain. Linking movement with the breath can help release this muscle tension and reset neuromuscular patterns. There are also breath awareness and breathing techniques that can help address structural issues like pain in the low back, pelvis, and neck and shoulders.

The breath is a powerful healing tool that allows us to speak to parts of the body that we cannot reach with the mind alone. By changing how we breathe and how we pay attention to our breath, we are able to counter the effects of chronic stress, reduce anxiety, release muscle tension, treat pain, and bring a sense of overall wellbeing.

Natural Treatments for Depression and Anxiety

Mood disorders like depression and anxiety are caused by complex interactions of brain chemistry, stress hormones, genetics, and other factors. The CDC recommends a collaborative approach to treatment, including primary care providers, mental health specialists, and other providers. The integrative therapies at Ha.Lé offer broad support for the body and mind, which helps regulate mood and easily complements other medical care.

Ha.Lé Counseling and Integrative Counseling provide compassionate one on one assessment and support for mood disorders. These sessions can be done in a private office, or while walking together on quiet residential streets in our neighborhood. This is called a Walk and Talk, and it allows the body and mind to process while in motion, which can be especially helpful for some people. Another option is Mindfulness Counseling, which provides specific tools for cultivating awareness and perspective and helps reduce distress across a wide range of situations.

More body-focused treatments can also profoundly support mental health. Bodywork and massage lower stress hormones by up to 50%, and boost levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are mood stabilizers. Sessions provide safe, nurturing touch, which makes space for you to relax, refocus, and find clarity. The effects are also cumulative. The first session can significantly reduce anxiety, and a series of sessions can provide reductions that are twice as large.

Acupuncture is a treatment that works to rebalance the systems of the body, and mood disorders are usually symptoms of a deep and/or complex imbalance. It is proven to reduce stress hormones and boost mood stabilizers, and sessions can have a more immediate effect than many medications.

Classes for therapeutic movement and self-care help to release endorphins, improve the connection between the body and mind, and lower stress hormones. They can also address the ways in which mood disorders can cause the body to curl forward in distress. Uncurling then allows the body to take deeper breaths, find its own internal support system, and feel energized.

Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders are complex issues that affect the whole body and mind. Treatment that addresses whole system imbalances and brings the body back into a state of rest and healing can help stabilize mood and promote a general sense of wellbeing.

Counseling for the Mind and Body

Our body is not separate from our mind, but instead they are aspects of the same system. An event in the body creates a response in the mind, and feelings and thoughts in the mind create physical responses in the body. When creating health, it is often necessary to address the mental and emotional aspects of distress as well as the physical effects.

Biologically, there are multiple ways that the mind and body communicate. Three of these pathways physically respond to our thoughts and feelings through the neurological system, endocrine system, and immune system. We are wired this way so that our bodies know when to prepare for danger and when it is safe to focus on digestion and healing.

When confronted with stress and danger, our bodies divert resources away from long term health in order to maintain short term survival. This means that our ability to fight off infection, to remain calm and centered, to fully and comfortably digest our food, and to have enough restful sleep is sacrificed in order to run away from lions, even if they are not real lions.

The reverse is also true. When our bodies experience pain and distress, it impacts our thoughts and feelings. The pain affects our nervous system, causing distinct physiological changes that can result in depression or anxiety. It also impacts our ability to keep things in perspective, increasing our worry and fear to levels above what helps keep us safe.

This is why mental health counseling is such an important part of what we do at Ha.Lé, and we have recently expanded our counseling offerings. All of our counselors understand the deep connection between the body and the mind, and bring deep compassion and expertise their sessions. We are here to help you create health for your whole mind and body.

Mind Body Therapy

Restorative practices are key to maintaining and creating health. Our bodies are designed to regularly have deep rest in order to reset the nervous system, flush the effects of stress, and rebalance internal processes, which all supports health and healing on a deep, fundamental level. Without enough restoration, our bodies become locked into chronic stress patterns that create dysfunction in our physical, mental, and emotional lives.

Mindfulness principles support restorative practices, which in turn creates a cascade of health benefits in the body. As the body moves into rest and restore mode, the heart rate will slow, the breath will deepen, and blood pressure will decrease. Common areas of muscular tension like the diaphragm, pelvis, and neck and shoulders, will begin to relax and release. As the musculoskeletal tension along the spine releases, the vertebrae will be able to make subtle adjustments toward alignment. The nervous system will also re-regulate itself, which helps to turn down the volume of pain signals, and other systems of the body like digestion, circulation, and circadian rhythms, will also reset and rebalance.

Mind Body Therapy uses this effectiveness of mindfulness and restoration to address specific health conditions.  At Ha.Lé, we always begin with a conversation, and the initial conversation for Mind Body Therapy will assess your health condition and personal goals. We will also seek to understand your current physical, mental, and spiritual capacity. This allows us to create a personalized mind body practice for you that applies mindfulness principles to optimize your health.

Your personalized mind body therapy practice can provide specialized techniques for a variety of specific health conditions. It can help with chronic pain from musculoskeletal conditions, and cardiovascular disease including heart failure and coronary heart disease. Mind Body Therapy can also address conditions like diabetes mellitus, obesity, anxiety, depression, post traumatic disorder, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, and fibromyalgia.

Mind Body Therapy is the application of principles of mindfulness for wellness and specific health conditions. Mindfulness techniques are able to turn the complex systems of the body toward restorative states, which creates space for deep healing and rebalancing.

Dr. Gurjeet Birdee is a researcher, scientist, physician, and mind body therapist. He is now available for Mind Body Therapy sessions at Ha.Lé.

From Self-Criticism to Self-Compassion

Self-Criticism refers to the voice inside our head that criticizes our thoughts, actions, and/or appearance. We use self-criticism as a way to motivate ourselves to drive forward, do the right thing, or stay safe. However, it turns out this is not an effective way to change our own behavior, and we often use this voice to say mean things to ourselves that we would not be comfortable saying to others.

Research conducted at Stanford University shows that self-criticism is more destructive than helpful. The more people criticize themselves, the slower their progress toward a goal, and the less likely they are to ever achieve it. Looking at the neuroscience of self-criticism, it actually shifts our brain into a state of self-inhibition and self-punishment. This causes us to disengage from our goals because we feel threatened and demoralized.

In the end, self-criticism makes us more likely to end up stuck in a cycle of procrastination and self-loathing. Even when we are able to push through this, it still saps emotional energy that could be used more productively.

Self-compassion is the alternative to self-criticism. It improves overall mental health, making you more likely to be happy, resilient, and optimistic about the future. It is a way for our inner voice to become more of a supportive friend, helping us feel safe and accepted enough to see ourselves clearly and make the changes we need to make to become healthier and happier.

There are 3 main components to self-compassion. Self-Kindness refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding, and to offer yourself soothing and comfort in the face of suffering. A sense of Common Humanity means recognizing that all humans are imperfect, and we all make mistakes, which helps put things in perspective. And finally, Mindfulness is a form of self-awareness that sees painful feelings in a clear and balanced manner, neither ignoring nor obsessing about what you don’t like about yourself.

Combining these three things creates self-compassion. This allows you to be easier on yourself when your suffering occurs through no fault of your own. It also helps you support yourself when the external circumstances of life are simply too painful or difficult to bear, and eases the suffering that you cause for yourself.

Moving out of self-criticism to a place of self-compassion is a gentler and more effective way to reach your goals and become the person you would like to be. It creates the feeling of internal safety that allows us each to blossom and thrive, growing in the direction we choose for ourselves.

What is Stress Management?

Stress is built in to being human, as we manage challenges and respond to problems. It is a fundamental part of being alive. It is also a whole-body event, with physical, mental, and emotional effects. Our bodies are designed to experience stress as a temporary state, and then return to rest and relaxation mode. However, modern life often creates chronic stress, where the body and mind do not fully reset.

Stress Management creates a set of tools that allow us to intentionally counter the effects of chronic stress in our bodies and minds. High levels of chronic stress put our wellbeing at risk. These fight or flight responses can reduce quality of sleep, slow healing times, affect digestion, strain heart health, and weaken your immune system. Because stress is a survival response, the body is basically pulling energy away from non-essential systems in order to fend off a lion attack.

Another way to think of stress is as a set of alarms. If our lion attack alarms are going off all day every day, our system doesn’t put energy toward long term health and wellbeing. The tools of stress management allow us to turn down the volume of the alarms and counter the signals of chronic stress. Through mindfulness exercises and daily physical practice, we are able to access the nervous system in a way that changes our physical, mental, and emotional states.

Because the effects of chronic stress build on themselves, layer by layer, over time, stress management can have profound effects. Physical discomforts, mental health impacts, and emotional resilience can all see positive results. Even if an issue is not caused by stress effects specifically, it is often made worse or heals slower because of the effects of chronic stress. Turning down the stress alarms frees up energy for the body to heal itself.

Stress management is key to our overall health and wellbeing, because chronic stress has comprehensive effects on our body and mind. Creating a sense of calm safety on a daily basis allows our survival-sensitive inner alarms to turn down the volume, which in turn lets our natural healing mechanisms get to work.

What is Walk & Talk Psychotherapy?

Our bodies are made to move, and walking is probably the single activity that brings the most benefits for the whole body. Walk and Talk counseling sessions use the physiological benefits of walking to support mental and emotional health.

A walk and talk session is exactly what it sounds like: you walk outside with your therapist during your counseling session. This can create a more relaxed environment, and sometimes make talking about difficult things easier. You set the pace, from a slow, meditative walk to an active, high energy session.

Walk and talk sessions can help get things moving, both literally and figuratively. They are a great fit for when you are going through a life transition, experiencing loss or grief, feeling challenged, or experiencing anxiety. The physical rhythm of walking becomes meditative, calming the nervous system and supporting emotional health.

On a physical level, walking outside while working with mental and emotional health topics reduces anxiety and stress and improves overall mood. The activity can reduce depressive symptoms, and being outside supports feelings of grounding and release. Not being face to face for the counseling session can also create more ease for processing on some topics.

Activity in general, like walking, also increases creativity, self-awareness, and emotional awareness. This means that walk and talk sessions can boost positive therapy outcomes. The movement improves blood flow to the brain, and one theory suggests that walking decreases brain activity in the left hemisphere and opens the way for creative insights in the right hemisphere.

Walk and Talk psychotherapy helps to integrate body and mind for the greater support of overall health. At Ha.Lé, our psychotherapists are happy to conduct sessions in a cozy office or while walking quiet residential streets, and you can decide as you go what the best option is for you.

Mindful Yoga is a Treatment for the Whole Self

Yoga, at its heart, is therapeutic. It is an ancient system of connecting the mind and body so that they move together and support health and vitality. Though it is popular to use yoga as a means to fitness goals, that is a narrow interpretation of a comprehensive system of health and treatment.

Yoga is a form of mindfulness practice, cultivating awareness from within the body. By bringing attention to the breath and alignment, it trains and conditions the mind. This has been shown to help improve cognitive function, boost memory, and reduce baseline stress levels.

In many ways, gentle yoga is the most advanced yoga. Without fast pacing or high physical challenge to occupy the mind, your attention is able to turn to the wealth of information percolating up from within the body: the exact angle of knee bend that begins to make an old injury ache; a perpetual knot in your shoulders that brings certain memories to the surface; the joy that comes from releasing tension in the low back. By tuning in to this body wisdom, we are able to better engage with our health and support ourselves.

Slower, more deliberate yoga is therefore able to treat imbalances and address discomfort, often before they become a bigger issue. It supports flexibility, lubricates joints, develops strength, increases balance, and reduces mental, emotional, and physical stress levels. Also, because it does use slower and gentler poses, it is accessible to a wider range of practitioners. Do not mistake it for easy, but know that it creates space for a wide range of bodies, ages, and levels of experience.

At Ha.Lé, our yoga classes are based in mindfulness practice. They are designed as treatments to support health and to continue the care we offer in our appointments. Therapeutic yoga is an effective way to support the whole self, bringing body and mind together to create health.

Go for a Walk

Our bodies are made to move, and specifically, to walk. We are fundamentally designed to use our feet to move from one place to another. This means that, on a biological level, walking activates important physical processes and balances our bodies in important and sometimes profound ways.

The power of walking comes through the movement. Our circulation increases, which allows our tissues to be nourished by more blood and oxygen. This nourishment allows them to repair and heal minor stresses, often before we notice them. Walking also allows us to enter into a naturally rhythmic state, which helps our minds shift into light meditation and stress reduction mode with ease.

The motion of putting one foot in front of the other coordinates complex interactions between muscles, bones, and connective tissues. It is an ongoing conversation that keeps each part healthy and connected to the whole. Increasing regular walks allows the body to adjust muscles and movements back toward healthy alignment and engagement, correcting some gait issues caused by too much sitting and not enough moving.

The corrective power of walking is well documented. Studies have shown that walking eases joint pain and arthritis by lubricating the joints and strengthening the muscles that support them. It also boosts immune function, reducing sick days by 43%. It can improve posture by reestablishing natural movement patterns, and it provides all the benefits of weight-bearing exercise. Because walking requires your body to stand upright against gravity, it increases bone density and muscle tone.  

Walking is a powerful way to increase whole body health, and is especially effective when you go for walks outdoors. This brings you connection with nature, fresh air, and sunshine, helping to reduce stress levels and relax the body and mind. Walk more to increase your overall sense of well being.

How Often Do You Need Self-Care?

Our bodies require regular care in order to thrive and heal, and one of the best ways to make sure we are on top of our self-care is to put it on our schedule instead of trying to fit it in around everything else. As a health and wellness practice, HaLe’ has experience with what kinds of schedules work best. Here are our recommendations, based on the state of your body:

Acute Pain: 3 classes/wk, bodywork or acupuncture every week

Acute pain is an active, painful flare up or injury. The body needs frequent treatment in order to release secondary tension, stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, support the lymph system, regulate the pain signals, and generally assist the healing process.

Sub-acute: 1-2 classes/wk, bodywork or acupuncture every 2 weeks

Sub-acute pain falls between acute pain (sudden and awful) and chronic pain (long term, constant/consistent pain). It means that something hurts, but it hasn’t been hurting for a very long time and it isn’t terrible. The body is not in crisis but still in need of support and healing, so regular treatment until it resolves is recommended.

Chronic: Start with 2-3 classes/wk and bodywork or acupuncture every 1-2 weeks, then taper down

Chronic pain is long term pain that is not healing or getting better, and can be anywhere on the spectrum from unbearable to really annoying. Addressing chronic pain involves a combination of treatments to reduce overall pain levels and to treat the root cause of the chronic condition. This usually means coming often at the beginning, and as treatment makes progress at interrupting the pain cycle, tapering off gradually until treatments reach a maintenance level.

Maintenance: 1-2 classes/wk, bodywork or acupuncture every 4 weeks

To maintain a level of general good health and low pain, we recommend a basic self-care schedule. This helps resolve issues before they begin to hurt, reduces baseline stress levels, hydrates the connective tissue (fascia), and promotes a general sense of well-being. People who are very active or athletic may need more frequent self-care maintenance.

 

A Note on Mental Health care:

These same protocols can also be applied to mental and emotional health. Psychotherapy sessions for high distress, medium distress, chronic distress, and mental health maintenance often follow the same frequency guidelines as the pain levels, since mental and emotional distress is a form of pain. Coming to classes provides valuable support for regulating mood, reducing the physical symptoms of mental and emotional stress, and releasing emotional energy that is stored in the body. Adding bodywork and/or acupuncture to your treatment plan can treat imbalances that may be contributing to distress and help boost a sense of overall wellbeing.